1998-12-27
New York Post
Clive Barnes

As the new, somber and enthralling Harold Prince musical “Parade” passes majestically by, it leaves in its wake all manner of disturbing questions.

This dramatic spectacle, which has opened to oddly mixed notices at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, could be some kind of defining moment in the hopefully ongoing story of Broadway musical theater.

It is different – different by degree, perhaps, rather than different in type.  It’s a “serious” musical, rife with post-bellum Southern discomfort, anti-Semitism, child murder, rigged evidence, faulty legal system and finally, a lynching.  Big stuff.  There’s even a tortured and tortuous love affair.

Seriously serious, then.  But as everyone has been quick to point out, Broadway audiences have already experienced serious – from a murderous barber (“Sweeny Todd”) and a sinking ship (“Titanic”) to a crazed lover (“Passion”) and Siamese twins (“Side Show”).

What more could there be to want?

The Broadway musical developed from operetta and vaudeville, which was principally concerned with carrying a tune and telling jokes.  But starting with Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “Show Boat” and “Porgy and Bess” of George and Ira Gershwin and Dubose Heyward, the musical has come a long way, baby.

When people talk about “form and content” they usually mean style and substance; but with the musical, proper issues of form and content do come into legitimate play.

So, can a Broadway musical carry the content, the sheer dramatic freight of a story such as “Parade” without a form that is recognizably operatic?  It’s a fair question.

Alfred Uhry’s book is a retelling of what was to be the first of those four or five “Trials of the Century” that have spasmodically and murkily reflected our past 100 years.

It is the true story of Leo Frank, a Brooklyn-born, Ivy League-educated Jew working as a supervisor of a pencil factory in Atlanta, accused in 1913 of the rape and murder of a 13-year-old employee.

After police work that was marked by both bungling and corruption, and a trial and its press coverage both characterized by xenophobic frenzy and rancid anti-Semitism, Frank was found guilty and sentenced to death.

His death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by the governor, who personally investigated the case and its findings.  Frank was taken to a county jail, from which a mob stole him away and lynched him.

I have already identified “Parade”: as a Harold Prince musical without offering equal credit to Uhry’s book, or the music and lyrics by young composer – in his first major assignment – Jason Robert Brown.  I was being unkind only to be just.

Now, the score.  By no means operatic, it is perfectly adequate and extremely promising.  Indeed, it assists the totality of the work in precisely the way those moody Bernard Herrmann scores added to a Welles or a Hitchcock movie.  And Uhry’s book fills the same function as a screenplay – no more, but no less.

The exquisitely shaped performances – especially from Brent Carver as the uptight Frank and Carolee Carmello as his slow-blossoming wife – are perfectly placed within the dramatic framework of Prince’s purpose, which is to evoke the stage-image of a time, a place and a happening.

Prince is called the “conceiver” of “Parade” as well as its director, and it is his auteur-like concept that has brought together all the show’s various elements – not least the visual – to create a striking, moving, fantastic dramatic collage in which all the parts are justified and justifiable, and yet the result is not – repeat, not – a “Broadway opera.”

That is what Stephen Sondheim — the first choice as composer – would have created, which, considering his work on “Passion,” might have been another masterpiece.

Prince’s “Parade is not a masterpiece.  It’s too diffuse, for one thing.  But it is something quite new in the musical theater.  It is a movie0-style drama that uses music and lyrics, in place of a camera, to bring a story movingly to life that could not be so effectively theatricalized in any other way.  See it.  Watch it work.


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